Via della Scala

By Hanja Kochansky - Rome, Italy - Advent/Christmas 2010



Via della Scala è sempre là. --Stefano Rosso


The dulcet chime of church bells permeates the air; seagulls squawk in the Mediterranean-blue sky; a light sirocco wind brings nose-itching whiffs of red dust from Africa. From my window I spy on the dumpy, flaccid, elderly guy with pasty face and droopy, hound-dog jowls, on the opposite side of the narrow street. I see him lying on his unmade bed in his small room (his lavatory is on the landing) and his boundless loneliness reaches me on the airwaves that connect us. He had a sister, but she died last year. She, like me, was often at the window. I could see her rapidly thinning hair -- had she lived a bit longer she would have been bald. Now he has nobody except his bottle.

When he comes down to the street he assumes the slouch of a man of no importance as he lingers under the arched doorway; clutching, with the trembling hands of the alcoholic, a small basket filled with bunches of wan flowers that he tries to sell for a few euro. Grief spills from his protruding, olive-black eyes. None of the regulars talk to him. He touches my heart, yet I, too, only give him a brief nod.


I moved into a neglected four-story building on Via della Scala, in Rome’s Trastevere, in May 1978. The sunny, third-floor, dirt-cheap, run-down, three-bedroom flat, whose windows look onto tilting roofs of old tiles that turn to rose in the setting sun, had all the charm I had been looking for.  I had been longing to live in this ancient part of town with its cobblestone alleys that wander this way and that, a place that, in the Middle Ages, spread outside the walls of the Vatican as a quarter for the poor, and a place, in recent times, where the artists lived.


Even though the street consists of only three short blocks, it has its own square, Piazza della Scala, presided over by the Baroque Church of Santa Maria della Scala. History tells us that in the early 1600s, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint "The Passage of the Virgin" for the church. However, when the friars saw the painting, they judged the Madonna’s crude, peasant pose too offensive and rejected it. In its place now hangs an unthreatening minor work on the same subject by Carlo Saraceni, whilst the rejected Caravaggio holds its own on the opulent walls of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

To the right of the Church of Saint Mary of the Stairway stands a seventeenth-century monastery. On the first floor of what was formerly a Carmelite convent is the famed old pharmacy (reputedly the oldest apothecary shop in the world) created by the monks to supply medicine to the popes but primarily to help the sick and needy.

Unlike the pharmacy -- now a museum (in which the monks who care for it still brew up special potions for those in the know) -- which retains a unique appearance with its original stone and bronze mortars, copper stills, and marble vessels,  Via della Scala has changed radically from the time I first came here.

By now the better part of the locals, the Trasteverini, have been bought out by the financial machine and evacuated to impersonal new neighborhoods far from the river where they swam in their childhood.  (If you fall into the Tiber now, you might die from all the bacteria.) Rents have become outrageous. Most of the painters and actors who live here nowadays are the ones who've "made it."

But the village atmosphere still persists, even though the shopkeepers I knew have all been pushed out. There was the butcher with his plump ruspante (free-range) chickens and fresh sausages from his cousin’s farm in Tuscany; the gracious grocer (aided by his numerous family) who never minded giving credit; the hunchback cobbler who prided himself on the perfection of his repairs and the softness of his leather; the portly, grey-haired pasta lady, who, with the help of her curly-haired son, made to-die-for ricotta and spinach ravioli; Eugenio with his hardware store where one could find anything-and-everything while chatting about politics with his lively daughter; and Maria, the lean, bespectacled seamstress, who had a gift for remodeling stolen furs behind her bolted green door. Their shops have all been replaced by a number of expensive and low-priced boutiques, three jewelers, two estate agents, and, finally, an Internet cafe. The tobacco shop cum betting shop has changed hands and been renovated four times. Several restaurants offering tourist menus, and a plethora of attractive, dimly-lit bars advertising Happy Hour drinks in tall glasses topped with little Chinese paper umbrellas, have spread wrought-iron tables and chairs under gaily striped canopies on the narrow, uneven street. In front of them stand large stone, terracotta, and plastic tubs packed with colorful flowers, unruly ferns, tropical shrubbery, squat palms, and tuberose bushes.

Hanging-baskets, window boxes, balconies and terraces brim over with greenery. The sturdy, blood-red bougainvillea which nestles in a nook between two time-scorched houses, grows more abundant with each season. The wisteria shoot that Sandy planted thirty years ago has crept all the way up the wall of her corner house, and in early May briefly drips sweet-scented bunches of delicate, sky-blue petals over neighboring roofs.

But Sandy is no longer here.

The ancient, one-eyed crone who sat on a derelict chair outside Biaggio’s wine shop and sold black-market cigarettes (to the young cops, too), is also gone. The baker, with his glowing wood fire burning in his oven all day, and to whom neighborhood women would carry heavy cast-iron casseroles packed with chunks of lamb, pork chops, or diced chicken, flanked with yellow potatoes heavily doused with green olive oil, red garlic, and pungent rosemary -- to be cooked for Sunday dinner -- is gone. Gone too is stocky, loud-mouthed, peroxided Manda -- the queen of the street -- who lived for full-volume scream-ups, and, with hands on broad hips, spat vulgar, offensive curses and threats at anyone impudent enough to cross her turf. Gone, as well, is her handsome son, the local drug-dealer, who was affectionately called the Prince of Thieves.

Happily, Biaggio still thrives, and a bunch of the now-retired old survivors of the neighborhood's past while away time, clutching cell-phones, drinking rough house wine around two small, white plastic tables, which good-natured Biaggio and Rosa, his hard working, gentle wife with a smile for everyone, have placed in front of the vineria’s entrance. The sound of their animated chatter as they discuss politics, football, and the rising cost of living, snakes up though my third-floor windows. As does the music of the countless street-musicians, with their violins, guitars, flutes, hand-organs, double bases, mandolins, and ethnic drums, who make incessant daily rounds to play the same songs over and over again in front of restaurants and bars: “O Sole Mio,” “Arrivederci Roma,” “La Paloma," “Besame Mucho,” “Roll out the Barrel,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow"...

I no longer hear the syncopated rhythms beaten out on the cobbles by the horse-drawn buggies that used to drive newlyweds from the church. They’ve been replaced by white, vintage cars. However, the tradition of setting up long, folding tables and chairs down on the street, as soon as the weather permits communal dining al fresco, still persists amongst Trasteverini families and friends. As I look over the jolly banquets -- innumerable pasta dishes, chunks of cheeses, slices of Parma ham and yellow melon, sun-ripened cherry tomatoes, appetizing cold-cuts, carciofi alla romana (a favorite Roman-style artichoke dish), steamed vegetables topped with olive oil, mounds of green and black olives, carafes of wine (bought from Biaggio) and cornucopias of seasonal fruits -- I am endlessly enchanted by the living theater Via della Scala offers.

During the day it’s a peaceful, quiet street (as quiet as any Italian street can be, that is), but when dusk begins to fall, a rich parade of all types spills onto the cobbles as the wrought-iron street lamps, mounted on the stone walls of the buildings, light up and radiate a misty amber glow.

I see gorgeous, lively, colorfully decked-out giggling girls with overflowing bosoms, balancing on drop-dead shoes; boys flaunting and flirting, laughing raucously to get attention; easy-going parents and adoring grandparents pushing a plethora of prams and strollers as their inquisitive, sociable babies (not subjected to curfews) enjoy the scene. Gays, holding hands, sway lean hips; a green bicycle circles; a pretty, intrusive Gypsy-girl sells long-stemmed, thornless, scentless roses; three fat old ladies wobble on walking sticks and puff on cigarettes. A one-armed Russian speaks loudly to his mate. An elderly couple, holding hands, window shop. Children (also not subjected to curfews) skip, yell, kick balls, guzzle slices of pizza, lick ice cream from the gelateria on the corner. An out-of-it junky undulates in her private world as lovers kiss unashamedly.

Everyone stops whatever he is doing to watch a religious procession trail by. Six bearers with big shoulders carry a large wooden statue of the Holy Virgin, with a crown of flowers on her veiled head. Preceding them, the local pastor, clad in his threadbare brown cassock, chants prayers through a microphone. Behind him, young choirboys in red tunics with ruffled white collars swing copper incense burners on long metal chains, dispersing clouds of fragrant smoke into the air. Some two hundred believers, mostly elderly women holding lit candles, following the holy effigy, shuffle unhurriedly, mumble monotonously: Ave Maria piena di grazia; Santa Maria, piena di grazia...  Creepy bats glide swiftly overhead.

The moment they turn the corner the hubbub begins again. North Africans with broad smiles sell pirated CDs; a motorcyclist with tattooed biceps cruises; sniffing every potted plant, convivial dogs of all types, wag tails as they leave their signatures on the street. John, the ageless Irish hobo, who has been here as long as I have, greets everyone: “Buona sera, buona sera.” A solitary monk, fingering his rosary, eyes two bored young kids who are aimlessly chasing pigeons. Italians, Brits, Germans, Scandinavians, Americans: a river of people, swaying in collective rhythm, hanging out with not much to do. Rome is not a city for the ambitious; here the philosophy is that of il dolce far niente (“the sweet doing nothing”). Nothing much happens in Rome. The Eternal City just is.

Some nights they overdo it and I’m rudely snatched from my dreams at four in the morning by a bunch of louts, shouting at the top of their voices, loudly singing popular songs off key. The people of this city have no civil sense: they are thoughtlessly oblivious to the needs of others. Arrogant, narcissistic Rome, the most beautiful city in the world, encourages bad manners. Once upon a time we used to throw buckets of water on such offenders, but this habit too no longer persists.

To keep up with the times, our building has been revamped: the façade painted antique-rose; potted azaleas on either side of the solid wood entrance door. The mustard-yellow front courtyard is elegantly paved with earth-tinted tiles. The stone trough in the back -- where in bygone centuries horses drank, and where I too sometimes washed my laundry (before hanging it out of my windows to dry, as is the custom here) along with my loud neighbors, the working-class women who lived here then -- was demolished. To be replaced by a small, concrete quadrangle, which is of no use to anyone. Automatic lights behind shell-shaped shades illuminate pink walls on each of the neatly tiled four floor landings. The winding marble stairs, flanked by the ornate wrought-iron rail, are no longer chipped.

And my flat, too, has been renovated. The cracked but beautiful old floor tiles have been replaced with salmon-hued ceramic squares; and after many an uncomfortable winter, when I tried to keep myself warm with gas cylinders carted up and down the narrow staircase, my landlady finally installed central heating. My windows have been double-glazed and -- oh joy! -- I now have a power-shower with unlimited hot water.

I’m passionately in love with my home.

Since I first moved in the late '70s, Signora Mariucci has been asking me to leave: “Signora Kochansky, you were supposed to stay for only one year, remember? You know that I want to sell it,” she intones monotonously, in a croaky voice. “With such high property taxes I’m hardly making anything on it -- in fact, I am losing on it. We have a terrible government, all they do for us is tax us.”

But given I’m an undemanding tenant who pays her charges quarterly (most of it in undeclared cash -- this is the tax-avoiding way of doing things here), and given that the property is now worth at least half-a-million dollars and going up all the time; and given the landlady is not a bad old bird, who’s grown to feel affection for me -- as I for her -- and doesn’t want to break my heart by turning me out, she shakes her head, sighs, ups the rent (I sigh) and renews my tenuous contract.    

Only, sadly, recently, on a hot August night, old Signora Mariucci passed away in her sleep. And now it seems her heirs have different plans for what I’ve always considered to be my home.

Oh well, perhaps the time has come for this old Trasteverina to move on.